Wedding Bells - Belarusian and Russian Marriage Traditions
By Anne Coombes
It may be true that 65% of all Russian marriages end in divorce (68% in Belarus) but this does not deter young people from taking the plunge. In both countries, the average age at which women marry is still an innocent yet optimistic 22; it is 24 for men. Many wedding palaces are seeing more couples tie the knot than ever before.
We all know how much our ex-Soviet friends love to kick up their heels, so it’s hardly surprising that weddings are an occasion for the ultimate in partying: dancing and drinking until dawn are almost obligatory. The official registry procedure is a simple affair which covers the legal side of marriage. It is usually carried out a few weeks before the ‘big event’, which is a huge church wedding followed by a wildly extravagant reception.
In fact, the fun starts well before the ceremony, with the groom is put through a series of challenges. As he climbs up to the bride’s apartment, he is likely to be assaulted by a barrage of posters poking fun at his entrance into the married state. On each landing, he might be given a task to accomplish: a song or a dance to perform, or a question to answer on his bride’s preferences for chocolates or flowers. To prove himself truly worthy of his bride, he might have to identify her from her gaggle of girlfriends in unusual ways: each of them hiding behind a corner, for example, and extending their feet for him to choose from, or several of them kissing a piece of paper to leave their lipstick marks. Once he’s won her hand, he can carry her off.
Characteristically, it’s now de-rigueur for the wedding to be rather flamboyant, with long parades of beribboned cars, colourful showy outfits and a host of exotic entertainments at the reception: from snake charmers to belly dancers. Keeping up with the Popovs is a must. With guest lists often stretching into hundreds, there are a lot of people to impress. The traditional tour of the war memorials, when couples lay flowers to recognise their debt to those who sacrified their lives among the accompanying entourage of balloon-covered cars, loudly honking their horns, and the use of the occasion as a lengthy photo shoot, detract somewhat from the solemnity of the gesture. In Minsk, the most popular spots for such gatherings are beside the eternal flame in Victory Square and on the Isle of Tears in the River Svislach (the Afghan memorial).
Harking back to more modest times, the Belarusian Culture Fund recently revived an ancient ritual whereby bride and groom visit a local potter to make their own dishes, the symbolic foundation of their family. A special pot is constructed, with each partner making one half. The potter helps them join the two halves together and the dish thereafter represents the integrity of their family.
Of course, one of the most important parts of the wedding is the marital kiss, since this seals the bride and groom’s love for one another. To encourage as much ‘lip-action’ as possible, guests at Russian and Belarusian weddings love to indulge in horseplay. At every toast, they proclaim the champagne to be bitter (shouting "Gorko!"). The only way to remedy the situation is for the newly-weds to kiss until the wine is transformed – rendered sweet – by their affection. Another Soviet tradition, imported from Georgia, is kidnapping the bride. The groom’s friends ‘steal’ her so that the guests are obliged to pool their spare cash as a ‘ransom’, which is later given to the couple as a gift. The whole elaborate carry-on recalls the bride being carried off by enemies in times of old.
Needless to say, weddings are steeped in some of the most ancient traditions and superstitions. In Belarus, the rings are supposed to be placed in a bowl of grain, turning them into talismans of fertility. These are worn on the right hand (moving to the left as a sign of widowhood). After the ceremony, the grain is then thrown over the happy couple (rather like confetti) to ensure their life flourishes. Meanwhile, since spiders are thought to have miraculous protective powers, a woven ‘toy’ spider is still occasionally held over the heads of new couples to ensure they live long happy lives together.
It would hardly be possible for the banya not to have a role to play in Russian weddings. The bride’s girlfriends used to accompany her there on the night before to comb out her single plait (a sign of maidenhood in medieval Russia). That was replaced by two, indicating her new status as a wife. In Belarus, an ancient custom was for the bride to give her fiancé the ‘dirty’ water left over from washing in the last sauna as a love potion. Once drunk, this would cast a spell to keep him forever besotted. This water was also used in making dough for dumplings at the wedding feast. Even today, modern brides often take a final girls’ trip to the banya with their friends to celebrate their transition into marriage.
Modern-day brides and grooms are treated like royalty on their special day, a tradition that has been around for centuries. This used to be taken so seriously that the pair were forbidden to lift a finger in any way. Their mothers even fed them. They were addressed as a young prince and princess and sat on ‘thrones’. A particularly Belarusian ritual is for the bride and groom to stand upon a ruchnik cloth during the ceremony (white linen embroidered with intricate red patterns). In days gone by, the bride would drag this padnozhnik behind her as she walked around the altar, her bridesmaids eagerly following in her footsteps to ensure they would also soon beat a path down the aisle. Even today, the couple have their hands bound together with a ruchnik, symbolising their union. Their wedding gifts are often wrapped in these ceremonial cloths.
On a more playful note, at Russian Orthodox weddings, whichever one of them is the first to step on the padnozhnik (or similar carpet in Russia), is said to wear the trousers in the marriage. This is rather like what happens at the reception with the loaf of Karavai bread. (Whoever can bite or tear off the bigger piece will rule the roost.) The latter is presented to the couple by their parents, alongside a dish of salt. These represent prosperity in their future home, and are the most typical symbols of welcome.
Certainly, love and romance will always be in fashion. It follows that marriage, too, will stay on the agenda, especially while state authorities push to improve the demographic situation. In Belarus, each woman is well aware that it is her ‘sacred duty’ to have at least two children. Luckily, the authorities are willing to support this with generous financial incentives for raising a family. Last summer, on Independence Day, the parade included all the couples who had recently wed. Resplendent in their beautiful wedding outfits, they waved to the crowds and received loud cheers in return. With 2006 proclaimed ‘The Year of Mothers,’ it was fitting that a selection of worthy candidates also had their place in the parade, which was headed by one astounding lady who was rewarded for having raised up 17 children. The media coverage went on for days.
There was no doubt left in anyone’s mind that wedded bliss is the way forward. As the saying goes: ‘If you love someone, their little dacha becomes a palace.’